How a bad joke 30 years ago changed the face of HIV activism in the Castro

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Steve Gibson has spent thirty years leading the charge against a bad joke.

“In 1983 the joke at my high school was ‘Are you gay? Got AIDS yet?’ When I heard that I knew things weren’t ever going to be the same for me,” Gibson says. That was the day he decided he wanted to spend his life working in HIV activism.

Gibson serves as executive director of Magnet, the one-stop health clinic and community center for gay and bisexual men in San Francisco. Magnet does not only STD testing but also art openings, public forums, and community meetings.

“Back when we started [in 2003]there was a chunk of change coming around to support gay men’s health services in San Francisco and there was a feeling that more of the same was going to generate more of the same,” Gibson told 429Magazine. “And believe it or not, at the time there was no one place doing HIV testing in the Castro.” So Magnet was founded with both an eye toward health and an eye toward community, in hopes that communal fraternity could do what education alone didn’t.

Gibson grew up in Indianapolis, where he learned “what it was like to have a safe, healthy childhood,” but where he also had to cope with the deaths of both of his parents before he was eighteen. “Steve’s father died of a massive heart attack when Steve was only five,” Nancy Hart, Gibson’s maternal aunt, said to 429Magazine. “His mother passed away just around the time he was finishing high school. They never really got to know what a wonderful son they had.”

Only after his parents’ deaths did Gibson start to gradually come out. “The Midwest is slow to come around to that kind of thing,” says Hart, who never suspected that her nephew was gay. “I never felt like he waited to tell me, it was just a matter of finding the right opportunity…I never worried about him though; he always lived by what he believed in, and that’s all I want from him.”

By 1990, when Gibson enrolled in the master’s program at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit school, he was not openly but prominently gay. “My first memory of Steve is a phone call where he said ‘I’m gay and I want to know if Saint Louis University is safe for me,’” says Janice Chadha, who was at the time an instructor in SLU’s health department. “I told him ‘I believe we can make it safe.’ Steve was the first person [at SLU]who ever said things like ‘I’m a gay man, and from my perspective…’ and the students were a little dumbfounded,” Chadha told 429Magazine.

“At first they didn’t really know what to do with me,” says Gibson. “I actually got a few death threats.”

Chadha recounts one particularly tense confrontation: “This big guy walked up to Steve in the hall and said ‘Steve Gibson, you’re a faggot.’ And Steve said ‘Yes, what can I do for you?’”

After that, Chadha says gave Gibson her safety whistle, on the grounds that he needed it more. “It was a band whistle. You could hear it a mile away.”

Obviously, Gibson wasn’t murdered at SLU. Instead he founded a campus LGBT group, which is still active. “When he graduated I got him a sheet cake with ‘Steve Gibson, Shameless Agitator’ written on it.” Chadha says the bakery kept a photo of the cake on display for years.

Gibson moved to San Francisco in 1992 specifically because he wanted to work in HIV activism. “I moved to the Castro and thought I was going to save the world. After a couple years I finally convinced the Stop AIDS project to hire me. It was when people were just starting to live longer, but people could still point to blocks where they knew a hundred people who had died.”

Steve Abbott, formerly on the board of Stop AIDS (before it was folded into the larger San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which Magnet is currently also part of), called Gibson the ideal recruit. “He found his calling. He wove himself right into the fabric of the project,” Abbott says. In fact, Gibson’s photo hung just inside the door of Stop AIDS’ main office even after he left. “Every time I walk in the door, there was Steve. He was still very much a part of the project.”

Gibson only quit Stop AIDS to start his own project: Magnet, which turned out to be trickier than he’d imagined.

“It was hell,” said Kevin Roe, the first employee Gibson hired. “Neither of us had any idea what we were getting into, and there was no one else to help. In those days we didn’t even have desks in our offices; Steve’s desk was in someone else’s building. Somehow we held up. Steve’s hair got whiter, but he’s still here. That’s how it is: You take as much hell as you can until you crack.”

Gibson describes himself as “a workaholic” who spends sixty hours a week at Magnet.

“He lies,” says Roe. “It’s more like seventy.”

In 2008, five years after opening, Magnet was averaging about 4,500 appointments a year, at the time considered crushing demand. By 2013, they’d almost quadrupled capacity, and are working towards opening a new site a few blocks away at 474 Castro.

Gibson didn’t expect to still be working at Magnet a decade after starting it. “I’ve been teasing everyone, saying at ten years it’s time to kick the founder out.” Of course, he was saying that after five years, too; he admits, “At some point you have to move on and do something else, but who knows what that might be?”

Perhaps it’s because the job turned out to be rewarding in unexpected ways. “My aunt told me ‘Your mom and dad would be so proud of your work,’ and I was surprised how much that meant to me,” he says. “What do you know: I’m a grown man, but I’m still looking for my parents’ approval after all.”

429Magazine

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